HPH169 : Embracing contemporary vernacular design – with Clare Nash
Clare Nash from Clare Nash Architecture talks about various responses by small developers in the UK and abroad to the challenges of creating modern communities through better design.
Interview with Clare Nash
Clare Nash set up Clare Nash Architecture six years ago. The team operate differently to other architects, working remotely or in co-working spaces and meeting up once a week. Her book, Contemporary Vernacular Design, How British Housing can Rediscover its Soul, naturally followed on from her Masters thesis where she researched the uses of vernacular materials and technologies in modern, sustainable housing in the UK and abroad.
In the past, houses were inherently green
Clare says, “Vernacular [design], I think, doesn’t really exist anymore, apart from in developing countries where people are literally just self-building.” Buildings used to be sustainable and varied in their design, using local materials and low energy out of necessity. She adds, “We seem to have lost all these really good ideas in modern housing design.”
In the UK, there are a few exceptions including Ashley Vale where a group of self-builders actually got hands-on and developed such a strong community that others really want to live there.
Contemporary vernacular design is a hybrid of old and new
Clare likens contemporary vernacular design to being a mixture of the best of the old and the best of the new. She cites an architectural ‘taste test’ that was carried out in Holland, where members of the public, architects and design professionals all found this ‘third way’ preferable to super modern or a pastiche of the old.
The residents Clare interviewed in Europe abroad unanimously liked modern homes, whereas she found people in this country quite suspicious of them. She believes this is because they tend to think of the poor quality housing stock built in the post-war period.
Incorporating good landscaping encourages people to talk to each other
Clare talks about contemporary vernacular design as a way to have mass produced housing that retains a sense of identity through the varied design of the homes and getting the landscaping right.
She cites an example in Holland where a group of architects took inspiration from a Mondrian painting to create different types of good-quality houses dotted around bisecting canals and green spaces. Clare compares how this development felt like home, whereas the new build houses local to her in the UK feel like a toy town, soulless, hence the subtitle of her book.
Another case study in Wales had open-ended gardens that led to a lake at the back where residents got to know each other because they often walked there. The design further encouraged interaction by incorporating a shared garage rather than individual drives.
Only residents really know whether housing design works
As well as interviewing architects, designers, housing associations and property developers, Clare made sure to speak to a good selection of the residents at each housing scheme to find out what actually worked.
While she often heard about teething problems, these resolved themselves and some of the small developers even had the foresight to anticipate and make provision for them. Resident feedback was summarised into four categories:
1) Comfort – is it warm enough and is it light enough?
Clare found the levels of insulation and daylighting were better than building regulations dictate. She comments that it’s really important to have bigger windows because seasonal affected disorder could be caused by being inside so much of the time.
2) Appropriateness – how appropriate is the scheme for the area?
Good design takes into account culture and context (i.e. the surrounding buildings and landscape, local materials and craftspeople). Therefore you need different types of housing for different types of area. Clare gives the example of a Norfolk development where they rejected the aesthetic of individual suburban plots; the site meant the front gardens were south facing and the architects chose to only separate them minimally with green wire fencing. The result was like a barn in a landscape.
3) Sustainability – does the design consider the embodied energy as well as the cost of running the home?
The focus in the UK is to save on energy bills but materials should matter too. Clare found examples such as Sieben Linden in Germany where they built everything out of straw bales and timber frame.
4) Improvement – is the housing an improvement on what is currently built locally?
Clare deliberately sought out developments that she felt did better than the status quo, and found that on the whole residents were really happy with the quality of life afforded by the housing and sense of community. “They were just very happy to live where they lived and they didn’t want to move. Which I think says it all really.”
The current dominant building culture in the UK restricts progress
Clare was really excited to meet some progressive and interesting developers who are trying to do things differently with their residents and the planet in mind, but notes that the existing culture prevents widespread expansion of such practices.
She observes that in the UK six big housebuilders are dominating the landscape and what the edges of our towns and cities look like, adding that everyone she talks to seems equally frustrated with what she calls ‘the standard redbrick box plonked everywhere’. Clare compares this with Europe where individual developments respond to local demand.
European governments regulate development differently
In Sweden, no more than 100 houses can be built by any one developer in any one area, which creates a diversity in housing. And in Vorarlberg in Austria, anyone who owns a piece of land can build on it as long as the design (which can be modern) is considered appropriate for the region.
There are cultural differences on the continent as well. In Germany, people often build together in ‘baugruppen’, and they think long-term so they build very good quality homes typically passed on to the next generation.
UK decision makers are beginning to value ‘community’
Historically, councils have gone with the highest bidder when selling land for housing development, and the big companies can outbid the smaller ones. However, councils are now starting to see that a slightly lower bidder can deliver much higher long-term benefits. For example, mixed-use schemes improve the sense of community, making people want to stay and resulting in less maintenance and increasing the scheme’s longevity.
Gavin Barwell, Minister of State for Housing & Planning, has said that the government is going to make it easier for smaller developers to get land and to start developing. Clare finds this encouraging and hopes it will become easier for self-builders too.
Self-builders need to register their interest
At the moment, planning authorities have to find out if there is a need for self-build land and then if there is, they have to provide it. In some cases it’s proving difficult to actually get councils to follow through, but Clare thinks the housing white paper will help to move things forward, saying: “I think it’s quite exciting times now. I’m really hopeful for the future of housing and house building in Britain.”
Find out more
Visit the website of Clare Nash Architecture
Download a transcript of the interview with Clare Nash